The Americans forever hold their peace
A recap of season five, episode 10
Last week's episode of The Americans gave us a flurry of neglected characters and plot points. This week reminded us of Philip and Elizabeth as they used to be.
The Americans is perfectly willing to showcase the Jenningses' continued beauty and erotic prowess, and Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both in spades. But the show also likes to linger on signs of the severe psychic damage they've endured. Keri Russell acts with her veins, literally: Her eyes sometimes pulse. Philip's frownlines are practically a supporting character at this point. Our protagonists look haggard and drawn. It's startling, then, when "Darkroom" flashes back to when Zhukov issued Elizabeth and Philip documents and a marriage license. They're so sickeningly young. So unlined and uncertain. So smooth and sad. They don't look like people with a "free will and a firm intention" (that's the phrase the priest used in the wedding ceremony). They look like … Paige.
An episode called "Darkroom" is about developing the negatives, then. It's about looking consequences in the face or (in the terms the EST instructor used) switching on the light after you've spent years groping with your hands out in the dark. Can it be done? Is sincerity — or an honest reckoning — possible at this late stage?
Paige's revelations about Pastor Tim turn out to be a fascinating vehicle through which to explore this. She's ostensibly photographing his diary to help her parents find him a more appealing post. This is the first decision she's been invited to make after her parents found her cleaning the house in an embittered frenzy, trying to parse what was true from what was false in Pastor Tim's evaluation of her soul. Elizabeth is pleased it's happening: Paige is finally seeing Pastor Tim for "what he is," she tells Philip. It sounds like a typical face-the-facts moment, the kind of unsentimental epiphany Elizabeth loves. But dramatically, what really pays off here is how off Philip and Elizabeth are. They remain focused on telling Paige that Pastor Tim is wrong about her. "Some of what he wrote, it's like … about who I am. About who he thinks I am," Paige says. Philip (who never manages to be reassuring), tries to tell Paige that she doesn't have to be who she was as a kid. "Something was true about it," Paige says to him. "You know that."
"Even if he were to write something that's true a little bit, so what? He doesn't know who you are," Philip says, not at all convincingly.
For all their efforts to convince Paige not to take Tim's musings too much to heart, the real bombshell buried in Pastor Tim's musings are his assessments of them. "Are they monsters? I don't know. What they've done to their daughter I'd have to call monstrous. I've seen sexual abuse, I've seen affairs, but nothing I've seen compares to what P.J. has been through. There's a severe psychic injury there. It may be permanent," Pastor Tim writes. "How can she trust anyone again?"
For an episode that featured a wedding, it's amazing that the most arresting scene involves watching Philip and Elizabeth read those letters in the mephistophelian light of the garage. Quite a thing to watch Paige — who's reading with them — suddenly look up to see how they're taking this ventriloquized complaint: "I am afraid for this poor girl. I fear for her mind, and I fear for her soul. She doesn't even know how much she's suffering."
Did Paige find out who Pastor Tim really is, as Elizabeth hoped? Sure: He's someone who lies to her about how great she'll do in life as they take an inventory of the beans. But she's also getting an outsider's assessment of her parents, and making sure they receive it too.
The Americans is sometimes guilty of taking an overly formulaic paint-by-numbers approach to human behavior — all it took for Philip to recapture Deirdre's interest was to recalibrate his back story slightly and boom! the code worked. Honeypots work in ways that can sometimes feel a little pat. It's a tendency this episode expressly calls out: Philip's EST lecture this week focused on the idea that people are machines, programmed to offer certain responses to specific stimuli. And while it's true that no one understands the relationship between stimulus and response better than Philip and Elizabeth — their whole training is predicated on it — it's refreshing to get an episode featuring Paige's sneaky cri de coeur and not one but two men of God.
That brings us to that surreptitious wedding. This might be Philip's ultimate attempt to stop groping for safety in the dark. It's touching and lovely and astonishing — I found myself worrying that Nadezhda would not take Mikhail. In an episode based on developing negatives, it's fitting, perhaps, that the most moving moment was when she said "Nyet" in that dark and hidden room. No, she had not promised herself to another man.
But the camera — an especially active presence this season — was awfully shy during that scene. Especially for an episode named for the room in which photos are developed. Weddings are camera-friendly occasions, filled with opportunities to manipulate you into intense feeling. Here, the close-ups were few, and both bride and groom seemed harried and stunned. For all that this surprise betrothal and crowning grabs at something real — at the possibility of making emotionally "official" the bond the State faked into being, switch on the lights, get at something true — it felt more like a scabbed yearning for oneness than like oneness achieved. The exhausted newlyweds don't kiss after hiding their wedding bands in the vault. They hug, exhausted, and with a sense of provisional relief.
The wedding wasn't a parody of communion. It didn't rise to the agonized silence pervading the Burov family dinner (the obsession with food that started this season has taken a sharp and distressing turn). But it wasn't the road or the new beginning the priest described. Instead, they bounce from an unbelieved-in blessing to divine condemnation: Their honeymoon begins with their daughter's unlined and unhappy face staring up at them as they read another religious man's unexpected version of the truth. Switch on the lights in a darkroom and you'll see better, but everything will just look red.
- Ep. 5.9: The ghosts that haunt The Americans
- Ep. 5.8: Claudia's plot on The Americans: A theory
- Ep. 5.7: The Americans' dilemma: Spy or die
- Ep. 5.6 The camera is getting sneakier on The Americans
- Ep. 5.5: The Americans is failing its sons
- Ep. 5.4: Regarding Henry and The Americans' other lost threads
- Ep. 5.3: Can The Americans tie up its loose ends?
- Ep. 5.2: The Americans has spent years whispering. Now it's starting to shout. That's a good thing.
- Ep. 5.1: The Americans recap: You are what you eat